By Angela Luh
Demonstrations for Hong Kong’s monumental student protest movement, dubbed “Occupy Central” and the “Umbrella Revolution,” have entered a sixth week since the first wave of protests sprung up at the end of September. The movement’s call for democracy within the ballooning apparatus of power by socialist China has elicited widespread media attention and overseas support. While Occupy Central has established visible rapport with many global citizens, some scholars and politicians caution that implementing democratic reforms in Hong Kong, whose laws remain largely under the control of the National People’s Congress in China, requires a “progressive approach” and that radical, quick-fix movements may do more harm than good. Indeed, as the protests have progressed, internal divisions within Hong Kong in support and in opposition of the movement have grown, and the number of street protesters has dwindled from thousands to hundreds.
Background on Occupy Central
The protests were sparked by Beijing’s decision in September to revise the nomination process for the 2017 election for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (CE), the head of its leadership. The plan, approved by the National People’s Congress, designates a 1,200-person nominating committee to select candidates for the CE and reduces the number of eligible candidates for the position, but will, for the first time in Hong Kong’s history, allow the CE to be chosen by popular vote. Currently, however, the committee consists of only 7 percent of the total Hong Kong electorate and is generally pro-Beijing, allowing China to prevent CE candidates who harbor democratic sentiments. The Chinese government can also veto candidates they dislike, prompting criticism from Hong Kong voters, claiming they can only vote for candidates chosen by Beijing.
Hong Kong protesters are demanding the right to freely vote to nominate candidates in the 2017 CE election. They have also demanded the resignation of current executive, C.Y. Leung, who has lost favor with a number of Hong Kong citizens with his criticism of the protests; many view him as a pawn of Beijing.
The response from China has been that of unyielding non-concession. Chinese President Xi Jinping maintained Beijing’s stance on Hong Kong’s position as a Special Administrative Region (SAR), which prohibits voters from nominating CE candidates. The Central Government Liaison’s office backed his assertion with a statement that declared Hong Kong’s electoral rules well within Beijing’s jurisdiction.
Tensions over the restrictive electoral reforms culminated on September 28, with the “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” civil disobedience campaign. Initiated by Hong Kong University Law Professor Benny Tai and widely supported by Hong Kong students, the protests dramatically escalated within days, with thousands occupying the streets to protest the proposed election rules. Hong Kong’s officials reacted to the movement by sending out police to disperse the masses, but excessive use of force, including the use of tear gas and batons, only served to galvanize the protesters, triggering more demonstrations against C.Y. Leung and the Hong Kong government.
Changing Currents in the Protests
Six weeks into the protest, the movement has lost much of its momentum.
The protesters have continued to demand the resignation of Hong Kong’s legislature to trigger a public referendum on electoral reform. While C.Y. Leung’s popularity levels have fallen through the ground, the likelihood of generating a public referendum is very little, since it is prohibited by Hong Kong Basic Law.
Furthermore, domestic opposition towards the movement is growing. The counter-movement is made up of pro-Beijing party line and business owners who have faced business deficits since the street occupations started. Hong Kong’s economy, which depends heavily on tourism and business, has taken a hit since protests began. Many mainlanders and counter-protesters perceive the protest as a violation to social order, law and economic prosperity. In addition to censoring much of the news associated with the protests, China has used evidence of Hong Kong’s faltering economy to dissuade sympathizers. In an October poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong, 54 percent of interviewees opposed Occupy Central, with only 27 percent in support of it.
Student leaders are planning to send representatives to Beijing this week during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. As negotiations with the Hong Kong government have proven ineffective, the movement leaders hope that seeking direct talks with mainland Chinese officials will prompt a more substantial response.
The Future of Hong Kong-China Relations
Hong Kong remains limited in its autonomy as a SAR under the “one country, two systems” principle. Hong Kong’s courts maintain relationships with China’s Central Authorities and falls under common law jurisdiction within socialist China, limiting its ability to maneuver policy decisions, particularly as it holds much less leverage today than it did years ago.
Once a crucial gateway for trade, investment and capital for China, Hong Kong is now much less important to China, with major Chinese cities becoming central hubs for trade and investment. Hong Kong’s share of China’s total GDP has declined by nearly 12 percent in past decade. The roles have reversed in this imbalanced relationship, with Hong Kong becoming increasingly dependent on China for trade. China’s imports constitute less than 2 percent of the total share whereas Hong Kong’s exports to China exceed half of its total exports.
Despite its diminishing role as a trade and investment center, Hong Kong is still a critical player in China’s economy. Hong Kong is more reliable than the mainland for equity financing and is crucial for investment in and out of China, accounting for two-thirds of foreign direct investment into China last year. Hong Kong is also the global center for renminbi trading, with huge sums of liquidity flowing through it every year.
Thus, a crackdown on Hong Kong is unlikely. It is more likely that China will wait for the protests to lose traction among Hong Kong citizens before it makes any compromises. Beijing’s growing economic leverage over Hong Kong may only increase its influence in the region.
As was the case in Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, China has proven that it can continue to stake its political influence in areas under its claim by guaranteeing economic growth and political stability. With many East Asian economies depending on trade and investment with China, Beijing can stifle support for pro-democracy protests and prevent them from entering China.
While China is unlikely to make concessions to Hong Kong protesters because it would show its weakness in regards to governing its other claims (Macau, Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan), China would benefit from economic stability in Hong Kong. Therefore, China and Hong Kong need to address the issue of political gridlock in the legislature, which prevents the government from making efficient and effective policy changes. The Hong Kong government must also clarify how the Legislative Council should be elected in 2016, define the composition of the 1,200-member nominating committee for the CE election and make changes to increase the representation of Hong Kong voters in the body. Both sides will need to concede a little and reach an agreement on the CE election in order to set a precedent for future political reforms.
Image by Oneris Rico